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02/27/2014 | Created by Darla Martin Tucker

A two-inch-long rock gecko, darkly mottled in browns, greens and yellows crawled peacefully along limestone cliffs in the jungles of Malaysia last summer, unaware that its home was in serious jeopardy.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Lee Grismer) A new species of rock gecko in Peninsular Malaysia whose home was saved from excavation.
(Photo courtesy of Malaysian Nature Society) Dr. Lee Grismer directs students during an expedition around limestone rocks in Peninsular Malaysia.
(Photo courtesy of Malaysian Nature Society) Dr. Lee Grismer and students conducting research in Peninsular Malaysia.
(Photo courtesy of Malaysian Nature Society) La Sierra biologist Lee Grismer with Malaysian Nature Society President Maketab Mohamed

A Singapore cement company, ASN Pte Ltd. aimed to quarry the region’s limestone wealth, known as karsts, for making cement, decimating the species-rich environment and the only known home of the tiny rock geckos and other animals. But La Sierra University biologist, Lee Grismer, working with Malaysian colleagues, two La Sierra students and an alumnus, along with the Malaysian Nature Society in Kuala Lumpur took action to thwart the company’s plans. They intended to save the plants and animals endemic to the limestone forest area called Merapoh, Pahang, Peninsular Malaysia, a region that is also an entrance to Malaysia’s oldest national park.

Last June, Grismer, his students Alexandra Sumarli, Jacob Chan, former student Ariel Loredo and University of Kansas Ph.D. student Cahn Kin Onn set out on a mission at the request of the nature society to find new species around limestone cliffs sites named Gua Gunting and Gua Goyang. The society needed information about species native to the region in its efforts to stop excavation of the area. This effort required trekking through difficult and sometimes dangerous rainforests gathering data proving the existence of species that would vanish from the earth should excavating equipment crush their home.

On June 23, while wading at night with a flashlight through hip-deep muck at the base of a limestone cliff, Grismer found what he was looking for – a gecko crawling along the cliff’s face, unwitting of the role it was about to play in preventing a corporation hundreds of miles away from its intended activity.

“It was difficult to catch because they are fast animals, but I lucked out,” Grismer said. “We put it in a zip-lock bag, photographed it the next day, then took tissue samples for DNA analysis, and brought the specimen back to La Sierra to examine.” Perry Wood, a former student of Grismer’s now at Brigham Young University in Utah helped with DNA analysis which together with morphological examination lead the scientists to conclude the animal was a new species.

Grismer provided the Malaysian Nature Society with the information about the rock gecko as well as for a new species of Bent-toed gecko they discovered in the area and are currently in the process of describing.

Armed with information gathered by stakeholders and bolstered by documentation about the new animals as well as new flora species discovered by another scientist at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, the nature society presented the data to the government to counter the cement plant’s efforts.

Toward building public support, the society created an awareness campaign and Facebook page called “Save Merapoh Caves” which Grismer and his team incorporated into the scientific name for the rock gecko, Cnemaspis selamatkanmerapoh, the second part of which means “Save Merapoh” in Malaysian.

The strategy paid off. “The Detailed EIA (company’s environmental impact report) was nearly finished but not yet submitted to the Department of Environment as the Executive Committee of the State of Pahang, where Merapoh is located, has declared the cement plant is not to proceed,” said Maketab Mohamed, the nature society’s president in a recent interview. “The collective effort from the various stakeholders helped in compiling the information to counter the data as given by the DEIA consultants. At the same time, Prof. Lee Grismer and team found three species of geckos, with one already confirmed, and really helped the fight as the species are endemic only to the karst hills to be used as cement materials namely, Gunung Goyang and Gunung Gunting.”

In December, the journal Zootaxa published a scientific article written by Grismer and his colleagues and students describing the new rock gecko species. “We posit that new karst-adapted species endemic to limestone forests will continue to be discovered and these regions will harbor a significant percentage of Peninsular Malaysia’s biodiversity and thusly should be conserved rather than quarried,” the scientists and students wrote.

La Sierra biology student Sumarli saw the new rock gecko after Grismer captured it. “I feel very happy that by finding the new gecko species we saved the karst formation. I know it is only one out of countless places in Malaysia in need of conservation,” she said. “I am also grateful to Dr. Grismer for giving me the opportunity. I learned that one of the best ways to learn biology is by getting your hands dirty. I learned a lot about rainforest biology and this trip really solidified my interest in herpetology.”

For Grismer, the successful disruption of the cement company’s plans is a fulfillment of the conservation goals driving his often-dangerous field research. “It was awesome,” he said. The summer research trek, which involved many other mountains in the northeastern part of the country was fruitful in other ways as well. Grismer netted 15 new species of reptiles and amphibians, including the rock gecko. It is the largest number of new species he has discovered in a single expedition during his 35-year career. He has discovered more than 120 new animals thus far.